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“Cast Away”: How to do a centuries-old story in a modern movie.

This article originally appeared on MovieRob’s blog, here.

I was invited to do this article by MovieRob for his Genre Grandeur series for February, and he asked me to choose the genre. I decided to do Nautical Films–movies that take place in, around, under, or have something significant to do with the sea. Thanks to Rob for hosting this event! I’ve chosen to analyze Robert Zemeckis’s 2000 film Cast Away.

The call of the sea is something that you either feel or you don’t. I’ve been drawn to it my whole life, always fascinated by ships, their stories and their history. My latest science fiction novel takes place aboard a cruise ship, my 2006 book Life Without Giamotti takes place partially on a submarine, and years ago I wrote a whole book about the “life” of an ocean liner. You’ll also see I’ve done a number of articles on my blog tagged “nautical.” I think the unspoken call of the sea is part of why stories about it have such a long and robust tradition, both in literature and in film. Cast Away, the 2000 adventure drama film by director Robert Zemeckis, is about the most classic and basic sea story that’s ever been told: a man who’s stranded alone on a deserted island. Yet that simple premise, which was done in English-language literature most notably by Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe, seems as compelling to us today as it did 300 years ago, and Cast Away is the master blueprint of how to do a centuries-old story in a modern movie.

Cast Away begins at the Christmas holidays in 1995, when Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks), a restless and hard-working executive for Federal Express, is juggling family, his academic girlfriend Kelly (Helen Hunt) who’s finishing her dissertation, and the heavy travel demands of his job. Just after Christmas he goes on a business trip to Malaysia on a FedEx plane. The plane crashes in a violent storm, killing all of the handful of people on board except Chuck, who washes up on a deserted island somewhere in the South Pacific. Using wreckage from the plane–including the contents of FedEx packages the craft was transporting–Chuck has to survive as best he can, figuring out where to get food, how to make fire and solve various other problems, including an impacted molar. Chuck’s only “companion” is a volleyball, on which he paints a face and talks to, calling it Wilson. (Spoiler alert) After four years on the island Chuck builds a raft and is eventually rescued and returned to civilization, but finds his life irrevocably changed, as everyone he left behind, including Kelly, gave him up for dead years ago.

As beautifully simple as its basic premise is, Cast Away is a complicated movie, and it was an extremely ambitious one. For one, it’s an incredibly tall order for an actor to go through almost an entire film completely alone, talking only to himself and inanimate objects. Tom Hanks rises to the challenge, never better in his career (in my opinion) than he is here; add to the acting challenge a grueling physical one, having to go from a pudgy middle-aged executive to an almost emaciated island native who’s used to living off the land. Director Zemeckis treats the material with the utmost care and subtlety, carefully avoiding the various story and tone pitfalls that could easily have turned the film into either a sappy melodrama or a boring survival picture. A lesser director would have simply assumed that Chuck’s struggle to survive on the island would be interesting to an audience by definition. Not Zemeckis. It’s not an interesting story just to see anyone try to survive on a tropical island. He and Hanks want us, the audience, to go along with the picture because we want to see the character of Chuck survive. This is an important distinction.

In Cast Away, suburban everyman Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) is forced to learn how to adapt to basic-survival situations, such as making fire without matches. Could you do this?

Zemeckis is also keenly aware that the plot and premise of Cast Away is as old as stories themselves, and he uses its timelessness in the picture’s favor. In traditional castaway stories like Robinson Crusoe, the marooned man is usually a sailor who has some understanding of the sea and some training or temperament to survive in emergency situations. In Cast Away, though, Chuck is totally a fish out of water. Most of us have not had military or survival training. If we dropped out of an airplane onto a deserted island we’d be as clueless as Chuck first is. Personally I have no idea how to make a fire without matches. I could probably do it, but I’d most likely blunder onto the answer largely by a combination of intuition and chance, as Chuck does in the film. Centuries ago people might generally have been better adapted for situations like this. Our own modern world, and our naivete and complacency, has made us into different people than those who took to the seas hundreds of years ago. Zemeckis knows this, and it’s part of why the film works.

It also works because it’s totally realistic, and possible. Despite heavily-trafficked air corridors, GPS satellites and Google Earth, there really are still “desert islands” out there in the real world, and if you happened to be stranded on one, your chances of rescue would be pretty slim. The sea remains every bit as big, expansive, unforgiving and daunting today in the 21st century as it was in Robinson Crusoe’s time, or in ancient times when humans first took to the oceans. In the final analysis a FedEx jet equipped with powerful engines and modern communications tools is just as vulnerable to the power of the sea and the environment as an 18th century sailing ship. In Cast Away Chuck does not survive through the application of modern technology, but through the age-old qualities of human invention, improvisation and the will to survive. These qualities are deeply personal and compelling in us all. As a result, Cast Away strikes us in a place where our most timeless emotions and cultural memories live. I’m convinced this is why the film was a hit. At the dawn of the 21st century audiences paid $429 million to see a story as old as the Bible. Not a lot of modern films can boast that.

For most of the film, Tom Hanks’s only companion is a volleyball named Wilson. Hanks not only rises to the acting challenge, he demolishes it, giving one of the best lead performances of his remarkable career.

Cast Away succeeds in answering the mysterious call of the sea that many of us feel and can’t put into words. It also deals with our human relationships with the sea and the environment in unique and compelling ways. It’s truly a great film, and, on top of all that, a thrilling and entertaining adventure story. It’s one of those films that’s slowly ascending the list of my favorite movies.

Thanks again to MovieRob for hosting this series.

The promotional image for Cast Away is presumably copyright (C) 2000 by Twentieth Century Fox. I believe my inclusion of it here is permissible under fair use.


  1. Great review, one of my favorite films!

  2. Great stuff! You captured it. Hanks was perfect because everyone relates to him. He transformed the character from one who was simply sympathetic to one who was empathetic. We wanted Chuck to survive not because we cared about him. We wanted him to survive because we saw ourselves in him. We needed Chuck to be okay.

    This movie also provides a social commentary (of course, as a sociologist, I would say that). Solitude has been largely eliminated from our culture. As a historian, you are aware of the role of solitude in shaping identity. Many cultures have rituals in which young men go off into the wilderness alone or time to pray or meditate. Solitude is one of those (what I might call) archetypal contradictions. We, as human beings, require interactions with others in order to shape our identities, but we also need solitude through which to subjectively make sense of and shape these identities to fit us as individual agents. Not enough solitude and our identities become reflexive and reactionary. We stress. Too much solitude and we lose perspective on our sense of self in relation to the generalized other (I’m just now putting these ideas into context. Your post has successfully distracted me from the work I’m supposed to be doing). Anyway, our contemporary society does not leave much room for solitude. Chuck doesn’t even have time to go to a dentist, let alone take a walkabout.

    So Cast Away hits us at a visceral level because there’s a gnawing part of us that actually wants to be on that island…at least for a little while…just to have a moment to put everything in its place. For many Americans watching that film, there’s also, I think, a latent sense of envy. So much of our society is ridiculous, meaningless and redundant, but we never really have time to stop and consider what is really important. Everything is presented with the deepest sense of urgency creating a constant state of near crisis until we stop, get away from the noise, and look at the toxic little elements that have cluttered up our lives. Then we can say, yes, this element of my life over here is important. It is meaningful to me. This element over here, however, is bullshit. Chuck was Cast Away and forced to face the imbecilities of his life, and in the process, as a work of art, we were forced to do the same. Probably one of the most telling scenes in that movie was when the packages washed ashore. Chuck felt such relief until he opened them up and discovered that all of that stuff was useless (at least immediately so). Think about it. For the most part, Chuck’s job, his life, in society was to move a bunch of useless stuff from one place to another place–on time.

    This really was a great movie. Thanks.

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